It's hard enough to make your mark as a rookie in Major League Soccer. But for 23-year-old Julian Gressel, there was an added pressure: a change in positions. After spending the first few matches in the center of the park, a tactical tweak from Atlanta United manager Tata Martino switched the eighth overall draft pick out to the wing.
He's thrived in both roles, starting every game but one so far this season for Atlanta United. And recently his contributions have been paying off in front of goal, with two goals and two assists in his last three games. It comes down to one of his biggest attributes coming out of the draft: his versatility.
“My roles have changed three or four times now,” Gressel said after the game Sunday. “This role is just different. It gives me a chance to get in more dangerous spots a lot more often. I’ve gotten good instruction from our coaching staff. They help me get accustomed to that new position quickly so that I know what they want from me at those positions.”
Sunday's sold-out 3-1 victory against New York City FC was one of Gressel's best performances yet. He made a crucial run and pass to notch an assist on Miguel Almirón's opener. Then it was his workrate on display with his second assist, dispossessing NYCFC's Alexander Callens before laying off another perfect cutback pass to Almirón to make it 3-0. Bringing the defensive ability of a central midfielder to the wide role has proven to be one of Gressel's biggest contributions, a fact that wasn't lost on the opposition.
“It made it difficult because of the quality of the players they have up front,” NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said after the match. “They put us under pressure. When a team like that wins all of the 50-50 (balls), it becomes more difficult for us because they have more desire than us.”
“Our pressure up front was fantastic,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “I can’t even count the number of balls their centerbacks passed out of bounds and that is rare for them. Tito (Hector Villalba), Yamil (Asad), Miguel (Almirón), Julian (Gressel) were fantastic up front with their first line of pressure. It makes our life a lot easier.”
While Gressel may not be getting the same number of headlines as his high-scoring teammates, his partners in the attack don't take his play for granted.
“We all know what a great player Julian is,” said Miguel Almirón after the game, through a translator. “He’s a really important player for the team. For us, it’s really important that he maintains the level of play that he’s been showing the last couple of games.”
Tito Villalba also singled out his rookie teammate for praise, saying through a translator, “he’s been excellent especially because it’s not his natural position but he’s brought great quality to that position. Even maybe better than I was!”
With the reintroduction of Josef Martínez to the lineup inching closer, some fans are wondering which position Gressel will play for the team long-term: in the middle or out wide? Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra thinks that's a good problem for the team to have. “It is a very difficult decision for [Coach Martino] to make but it is better for us because it creates competition out there on the field for the lineup.”
Either way, Gressel says he's ready to play whatever position his coach needs him to play.
“I think I am a versatile player coming in. I knew that I was going to get moved around a little bit. I just have to take it on. I don’t see it as negative. That’s probably a big thing as well, just do your job and play well."
Gressel and his teammates are hoping to keep up their form for their upcoming two-game road trip against the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Chicago Fire. They'll be back at Bobby Dodd Stadium on June 17th to face the Columbus Crew. Single-game tickets and multi-game packs are still available.